You wouldn’t ask a paralegal to sit in as judge

In recent months the question of what it takes to meet the standards of a journalist hit the headlines when Tina Renna, activist, blogger and president of the Union County Watchdog Association, asked for legal protection under the New Jersey Newspersons Shield Law. The answer, apparently, is not much.

Renna sought the protection to avoid going before a grand jury and revealing the names of county employees she claimed to know as having taken home portable generators during the superstorm Sandy power outage. It’s these names the Union County Prosecutor’s Office wanted to see, so their inquiry into the matter could be fleshed out.

Renna, who has battled against the county as an activist since 2005, refused to help when asked, and was slapped with a subpoena to go before the grand jury, where she would be forced to reveal the names of the employees. By filing for protection under the Shield Law, Renna sought to quash this subpoena, and therefore avoid going before the grand jury.

The New Jersey Shield Law, one of the strongest in the nation, is in place to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. But, there are guidelines and rules attached to this law to ensure anyone seeking this protection qualifies under it.

I sat through the two-day hearing that ensued in early March before Union county Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy. The hearing was to provide the the judge with additional information on whether Renna was indeed a journalist, or a blogger and activist. To say this hearing was enlightening would be an understatement.

At times I cringed at Renna’s arrogance and was convinced any judge would see that this blogger, albeit an excellent investigator, did not measure up to the standing of a journalist. Of course, it turned out that I was wrong. Apparently Cassidy saw that Renna met the requirements of this law, which is still mind boggling to me.

I suppose I am one of those old fashioned journalists; the kind who went through several grueling years as a rookie starting in 1989. Back then you learned the ropes from old salty editors who had 25 or 30 years in newsroom trenches. They were seasoned pros who loved being journalists and were the best mentors any rookie ever had.

I not only learned how to be a solid reporter from them, but through some kind of journalistic osmosis, I discovered there was more to covering the news than just getting the story. And it had everything to do with integrity and ethics.

My first year wasn’t easy, but before I even headed out the door to do my first story, I was informed that as a reporter I was not the news. So any illusions of stepping up to the podium at a governing body meeting and hammering elected officials like a attorney drilling a witness on the stand was quickly dashed.

My job was to get the stories, make sure all the facts were right and remember there was always two sides to a story. If that meant calling everyone on deadline until I tracked them down, so be it. And no, the other side didn’t always like me. Far from it. Sometimes their disdain for my persistence was palpable. But eventually they came around and professional relationships were formed. Many still continue today, some 24 years after they first began.

But sure, I made plenty of mistakes along the way, and I still make some today. Every reporter does. Every person does. But as I became more seasoned as a journalist, I knew being objective was critical to gaining the respect of readers and officials alike.

In the beginning I slipped a lot of opinion into my articles, but the buck stopped at my editors who never hesitated to yell across a busy newsroom “What the heck is this? You can’t say that in a newspaper!”

When it comes to doing my job as a journalist, it’s not about me or how I feel about a particular issue or elected official. It’s about trying hard to present both sides of an issue to the best of my ability and letting readers draw their own conclusions from those facts.
It involves a lot more than investigating an issue and then sitting down at a computer and banging out a story filled with expletives, accusations and opinion. If it was that easy I could hammer out ten articles a week in no time at all.

No municipality or county is entirely bad and all politicians are not crooks. Thus, the articles a journalist writes should never be all good or all negative. There should be a balance, because anything less looks like you either are pandering to elected officials or you have a vendetta against them.
Part of being a fair journalist is forming relationships, even though you may not always agree with the people involved. You form these relationships because both sides need one another in order to do their job. As a reporter, I need to interview both sides so my articles are as objective as possible. That is due diligence.

Not being able to call elected officials or municipal and county employees leaves you with one thing: conjecture and one sided articles.
Integrity goes hand and hand with trust. If a journalist has integrity, elected officials will trust them, whether they like the reporter or not. When you pick up the phone and call them, the majority will talk to you or call you back. That is just how it is when your intentions are that of a journalist, not an activist.

I have had mixed feelings over Renna receiving the right to use the Shield Law, and as a result being called a journalist.
Initially I was angry because it seemed the journalistic bar had been lowered. I wondered where that left all the journalists who work hard to ensure they never get close to the line of tabloid muckraker.

Things cleared for me less than two days after the ruling when Renna posted on her blog, County Watchers, in an entry titled “How my dissatisfaction with the media led me to become a journalist.” She wasted no time in jumping on the journalist bandwagon but forgot there is no line cutting in journalism.

Which is not to say that Renna does not work hard. She does and has uncovered many excellent issues that possibly would not have seen the light of day. Does that make her a journalist?

The truth is Cassidy blurred the lines between a blogger and journalist and that is sad. How do we now distinguish a trained, ethical journalist with integrity from an independent blogger with an ax to grind?

I have never seen Renna write a positive article about the county and that gave me pause. I wondered what the chances were that a journalist would only come upon negative news all the time. As a reporter, I find there is good news and we have an obligation to report on it, just as we do negative news.

The truth is Renna has alienated just about every county official and all the freeholders. I don’t doubt no one will speak to her at the county level. If I screamed insults and cursed at officials all the time and told them to rot in hell, as she routinely does, no one would speak to me either. But they do. Why is that?

The basic principles of journalistic integrity — objectivity in reporting, detachment from personal bias, and a disinterested vigilance for finding the truth — are all essential in forming public trust. Without those elements, is there real truth in what a journalist or activist reports?

Journalism is undergoing a big revolution. Technology and the web have changed how information gets into reader’s hands and a large segment of the population has turned to the web for a non-stop flow of continual breaking news.

But when Cassidy wrote her decision on the Renna matter, this blurring of the lines between journalists and bloggers will result in readers being confused. Will they know what Renna does is the “wild west” of journalism; a new frontier and an emerging media network where many excellent writers post, but just as many cannot be trusted to be fair and objective? Its an untamed place and Cassidy just gave Renna the right to do what she wants in the name of journalism.

Without editors, fact checkers, copy editors and a 4th set of eyes reviewing articles, journalists have to look at their own work, and readers will not know what is fact based and what is not.

Many bloggers — not all — lack the responsibility journalists have and yet want the protection of the Shield Law.
When someone wears the coat of a journalist it must be carried with great responsibility. I’m not sure Renna understands that responsibility or has the ability to be objective in any way.

I fault Cassidy as a judge for handing down the ruling she produced, because her decision will become case law.

Perhaps, to Cassidy, there was no difference between journalists and Renna. But I’m sure if some judge decided a paralegal could sit on a bench and preside over a courtroom, Cassidy would have plenty to say in defense of her hard earned judicial career. I’m sure if a private detective attempted to execute a search warrant the police would not be happy. And I’m sure a paramedic cannot perform surgery.

There is a stark difference between owning a website and filling it with blog posts by you and your friends, and working with a team at a news gathering organization complete with editors, copy editors, fact checkers, reporters, paginators, publishers and more. I was hoping that this distinction would have been made. But alas, I can do nothing but continue to provide Union County residents with integrity and accuracy, and hope it pays off.

I rest my case.